Tuesday, March 15, 2005

In one of those coincidences of timing that might lead one to suspect that a particularly mischievous pixie is guiding events, Sen. Ted Kennedy announced he was canceling his meeting with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams the same weekend that the Bush administration let it be known it might deal in some non-coercive way with Hezbollah, the Islamist terrorist organization based in Lebanon. I fear that President Bush is about to begin matriculating in the same course of study from which Mr. Kennedy, after decades, has finally seemingly graduated, the lesson of which is: It’s easier to see a rainbow than to follow it to its pot of gold.

For decades, seekers of peace and democracy for the emerald isle have believed the fiction that one could deal with Sinn Fein as a legitimate democratic political party separate from the terrorist Irish Republican Army. This was an illusion not only for Irish Americans with a romantic view of the grand old struggle. Her Britannic majesty’s governments — which for centuries have held quite the opposite view of Ireland’s struggle for freedom — shared in that illusion. And to some extent they still do.

The British government is proposing to fine Sinn Fein’s parliamentary members 500,000 pounds a year for the IRA’s crime of bank robbery in December. Michael McDowell, the Irish justice minister, named Sinn Fein MPs Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Martin Ferris as being among the IRA’s Army Council — thus recognizing a commonality of responsibility between the terrorist IRA and the political party Sinn Fein.

On the other hand, according to the BBC, the government’s Northern Ireland secretary, Paul Murphy, rejected calls to exclude Sinn Fein from the political process, saying the move would not deliver “long-term stability,” although they have not ruled out such a decision later.

“Long-term stability” is the illusive pot of gold. The rainbow is the gorgeous vision of dealing separately with the political and military arms of a terrorist organization — in the expectation that the political arm will grow, while the military arm will wither. Unfortunately, both arms are connected to the same body, which is governed by the same brain. And it is the brain of a killer.

But because well-organized terrorists are so difficult to defeat, it is hard to resist chasing down the chimera of a morally divisible terrorist organization. So now, apparently, Mr. Bush is entering the chase for the illusive divisible Hezbollah.

Jackson Diehl, the estimable Washington Post columnist, perfectly caught the prevailing mood earlier this week in his column: “Therein lies the opportunity for President Bush’s pro-democracy team. If the Islamists can be induced to pursue power by politics — if Hezbollah continues to make its case with rallies rather than car bombs in Beirut — then those movements might be detached from their violent cells and, over time, the more extreme elements of their agendas.”

To give Mr. Diehl his due, he followed that gorgeous vision with the down-to-earth disclaimer: “This may not be likely, but neither is it fantasy.” Later in his column he judged that: “The United States also has to be prepared to set aside coercion as the primary instrument for combating groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas — provided they observe their own cease-fires.”

All this sounds reasonable. If it didn’t, smart politicians and journalists wouldn’t be attracted to it. But Hezbollah exists to oppose Israel’s right to exist. Nor do they support secular democratic government for Muslims. Moreover, it is very likely they have established sleeper terrorist cells in the United States.

They may well participate in democratic politics for the purpose of gaining power. They certainly provide food, shelter and education to poor Lebanese.

So also, Al Capone set up soup kitchens during the Depression. And the Nazis provided social services to poor and starving Germans in the 1920s and early ‘30s. But they both kept killing until, respectively, the FBI and the Allies put them both out of business.

Hezbollah is certainly a ruthless band of cutthroats, but there is no evidence that they are insincere in their beliefs, or that they are open to changing their minds and joining the Women’s League of Voters. If, at their heart, they oppose our objectives, then either they have to be defeated or we do.

Any political party — be it Sinn Fein, Hezbollah, Hamas or the Nazis — that has its own private army is inherently not a democratic institution. Nor is it likely to evolve into one if it holds undemocratic ideas.

I wish the president well as he chases down his rainbow. But to get the pot of gold, he must first catch the leprechaun — whose job it is to keep moving the pot. The little fellows are hard enough to find in Ireland — but are there any of them at all in the desert?

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